What is Porcelain?
July 1st, 2005

Shedding some light on the confusion over what is and is not porcelain tile.

July-August 2005

Depending on whom you ask, porcelain tile now owns 30-40 percent of the U.S. tile marketplace. Ask dealers what they are selling the most of and they invariably say porcelain. It’s 30 percent harder than granite— tough enough for floors and commercial installations. It’s also stylish enough to suit the most discriminating homeowner, available in sizes, colors and finishes to suit any design scheme.

So, what’s the problem?

Not all porcelain meets the American definition of porcelain, but the customer or end user and sometimes even the dealer are not necessarily aware of this. When the tile doesn’t add up to porcelain’s wear expectations, or an installation fails because it used products appropriate for porcelain on tile that was not porcelain, the dealer, the manufacturer and even the installer get a “black eye.” When the price per square foot ranges anywhere from $1.89 and up, the dealer and the end user want to know what’s driving the cost variation.

Defining porcelain

The Tile Council of North America (TCNA) 2005 Handbook for Ceramic Tile Installation defines porcelain as a ceramic tile that can be “unglazed, glazed, or honed to a high polish. Because of the composition of the body and how the tile is manufactured, the finished product is impervious, having less than 0.5% water absorption.” The handbook also points out—as do experienced dealers and installers—that porcelain’s high absorption rate impacts installation. Setting materials specifically designed for porcelain tile must be used.

TCNA Executive Director Eric Astrachan says the handbook language matches both the appropriate ANSI Standard and the ISO (international) standard. He points out, however, that there is a slight difference in how water is measured in the ANSI and ISO methods. Astrachan says this difference shows up in the absorption rate. Beyond this difference, however, Astrachan says, “We are aware that some tile imported is not at all impervious.”

By definition, vitreous is 0.5-3.0% absorption rate and semi-vitreous has a 3.0 to 7.0% absorption rate. “To be fair,” says Astrachan, “there are some excellent vitreous products on the marketplace.” But, he adds, labeling them as porcelain is misleading the customer. Astrachan says there is no standard definition of “residential porcelain.”

Steve Wallace of Longust Distributing in Mesa, Arizona, agrees. He says some off-shore products have been stamped porcelain when they clearly are not. And, he says, it’s an injustice to dealers and consumers. Like others in the business, Wallace has had experience with imported products from countries all over the world marking vitreous or even semi-vitreous products “porcelain.”

The reason for this, Wallace says, is that there is no one world-wide governing body. And, as Astrachan points out, “Porcelain is a popular name.”

What are the advantages of porcelain tile?

As Linda Hennelly, Director of Residential Sales for Crossville Tile, explains, technology, raw materials and processing make porcelain a more expensive product. Variations in technology have resulted in several types of porcelain, but they all share the 0.5 percent absorption rate.

Hennelly says that originally porcelain was an unglazed, thru-body tile, meaning the color was consistent from top to bottom. It was designed for and installed in high traffic—usually commercial—areas. However, it was also adopted for residential use. Eventually improving technology allowed porcelain manufacturers to achieve more of a stone look by mixing additional dyes in the powder, but the absorptive quality remained. Next came double-filling, pressing two different colors to achieve a more random look replicating stone. This technology was even more expensive, but the result was still 0.5 percent absorption.

What can dealers do?

Clearly, the popularity of porcelain is driving its demand. As Hennelly says, “It’s affecting the total market and driving the price down.” Increasingly expensive technology, growing inequities between the U.S. dollar and the euro, and demand for porcelain have blurred the absorption standard on some imports. Some manufacturers may not have the technical ability to make porcelain, but would like to share in that marketplace.

Wallace believes dealers need to be proactive and protect the definition of porcelain. He now uses “impervious” as the key word to differentiate the 0.5% absorption rate for those porcelains that do not meet the standard. He has created a label that identifies product as Impervious Porcelain or Ceramic and asks his suppliers to check the correct box.

He is insisting on impervious tile with an absorption rate of less than 0.5 percent. He tests what he buys to make sure it meets that standard. He’s also talked to other industry leaders, encouraging them to do all they can to protect the meaning of porcelain.

Crossville only produces porcelain. Hennelly says the company’s target customer wants the quality and style that porcelain delivers.

The bottom line for the consumer, who is probably going to pick what she likes rather than an absorption rate, is the porcelain label with a wide range of price tags. It costs less and it’s not going to perform the same way porcelain tile as defined by US manufacturers performs.

Dealers need to be aware of this. They need to understand the definition of porcelain and the potential for other products to be labeled porcelain when the products do not meet this definition. Finally, they need to educate the customer on these variations.

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